Key Fire Service Duties
- Responding to fires
- Responding to road traffic accidents
- Responding to other emergencies as applicable
- Contributing to national resilience (collectively being able to respond to up to 4 simultaneous national-level emergencies)
- Undertaking preventative activities to reduce the risk of fire
- Carrying out safety inspections of business premises
Spending Cuts Overview
It is worth knowing the true figures for Fire Service cuts before quoting them. As a socialist movement it is important that we are clear about the facts so that we don’t fall into the same trap as the right-wing media, of exaggerating figures to meet our own political aims. Not that the cuts don’t speak for themselves. This page identifies the cuts made and the negative impact they are having on the ability of the Fire Service to carry out its duties.
The page is broken down into two main sections:
- National Audit Office (NAO) report 2015. This section covers the period from 2010 to 2015. The NAO hasn't carried out an audit since 2015, so the report is a useful indicator of the strains the Fire Service was under after five years of cuts
- Analysis of the impact of cuts since 2015. This section covers the impact that the 2010 to 2015 cuts had, in conjunction with further cuts from 2015 to the present.
It can clearly be seen that when the NAO audit was carried out in 2015 the Fire Service was already showing signs of strain. It can also be seen from the report that much of the good work that had been done in the past to strengthen the Fire Service was in the process of being undone. So while in 2015 the Fire Service was still quite resilient, despite heavy cuts in front-line firefighters and equipment, past efficiency and planning were helping to offset the impact.
It can also be seen clearly from the report that the Fire Service had reached a point where further cuts would severely impact its effectiveness. The Fire Service, by 2015, had reorganised as much as was possible to manage the cuts. Even if further cuts were to be made, then a halt was needed to allow for a full assessment of the impact of the earlier cuts. However despite the severe cuts, the government pressed ahead with a further 20% reduction in funding from 2016 to the present. The impact of this decision along with the earlier cuts are now being seen in rising numbers of fire deaths, slower response times and a service that is showing signs of breaking down.
Many Fire Authorities have taken up private enterprises to supplement their funding, offering consultancy services on fire prevention. While this has provided funds, it raises the issue of the service moving away from its core aims in order to provide any service whatsoever. Worryingly, it also leaves open the door for government to further reduce funding and to push the service into seeking funds from whatever source is open to it.
One other major concern is that a large percentage of Fire Service funding comes from council tax. On average, council tax funded 40% of the overall spend of a Fire Authority. With the reduction in government spending this figure now stands at over 50%. Councils are already hard pressed due to fact that they too have had central government funding removed. So while council funding to the Fire Service has so far held up to government cuts pretty well, the strain on councils will mean that this can not be guaranteed. In reality the Fire Service will be undermined on two fronts.
NOTE: It has been said in many quarters that the Fire Service now records fire deaths differently and this is what led to the drop in the recorded number of fire deaths from 2010 to 2015. This is not the case. The recording of fire deaths rules have not changed. The systems for recording deaths have been updated and this may well have led to this confusion. The number of fire deaths was in fact falling and the government have used this to justify their cuts. However there has been an increase in the number of fire deaths since 2015, something the Fire Service have been raising concerns about as a potential outcome since the cuts were first put in place.
- National Audit Office Report: Impact of funding reductions on fire and rescue services - November 2015 https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Impact-of-funding-reductions-on-fire-and-rescue-services-A.pdf
- Fire statistics monitor 2011-2012 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/6959/2172323.pdf
National Audit Office report 2015
The last full National Audit Report (NAO report) was carried out in 2015 (Released November 2015). It is a useful report and forms much of the basis for analysis on this section from 2010 until its release in 2015.
The report “Impact of funding reductions on fire and rescue services”, as the name suggests, looks at the reduction of central funding to the service and the impact this has had. As can be expected from such a report, it ignores the moral questions regarding that reduction of funding.
Further to the NAO report, this page follows up on the further funding cuts which have taken place since 2015 and the impact these cuts have had on the service.
Cuts made 2010 to 2015
There are two types of Fire Authorities. For the purpose of this page it often simply uses the figures from one type of authority and relies on the NAO report averages. This does not undermine the figures, but rather gives an overall picture. Different authorities have suffered to different extents. This is dependant on whether they received the bulk of their funding locally or received a greater percentage from government. Those who received the higher percentage of funding from government have suffered the greatest impact. Local funding had held fairly steady at the time of the 2015 audit.
Cuts to government funding
County and unitary authorities with fire and rescue services saw an average reduction in government funding of 31.3%. However, it is not possible to isolate the amount of government funding passed through these councils to their fire and rescue service. This figure therefore represents the funding envelope in which the fire and rescue budget was negotiated locally, rather than the precise budget for the service.
This ranged from a reduction of 35.4% to 20.5%. Within this group, Metropolitan Fire Authorities saw a reduction of 33.9%, compared to 25.9% for combined Authorities. In comparison, government funding for single tier and county councils fell by 40.2%. It is estimated by NAO that government funding for LFEPA fell by 20.2%.
There had been, in the period 2010-15, little or no reduction in council tax income for the Fire Service, which had remained relatively stable. The reduction in spending power was almost solely due to the reduction in government funding.
The Authorities hardest hit by the cuts were those that relied most heavily on government spending (grant dependant). Paradoxically, grant-dependent areas tend to be those with higher levels of need. It defines need in terms of levels of risk associated with particular populations or industrial facilities, as well as the differing costs of providing services in different areas. Fire Authorities assessed as having higher levels of need tend to have seen larger reductions in spending power since 2010-11.
Cuts in funding - government versus local
Change in spending power by component 2010-11 to 2015-16 for stand-alone fire and rescue authorities, where the major reduction in spending is due to reduced government spending. The government has reduced spending, on average, by 30%, but as council tax spending has remained stable, this means the average reduction in spend is 19% for stand-alone Authorities.
There have been changes in locally-raised income which allowed the Fire Service to pull down additional funding if their council had agreed not to raise local taxes. Initially Fire Services took up this grant, but the use of this fell away to an average of 20% of Fire Services by 2015-16. Other options to the Fire Service are additional income from council tax or sales, fees and charges. They can also draw on their reserves. This of course puts further pressure on Authorities to focus on revenue maximisation rather than on the core duty of improving the service, reducing fire deaths and bettering response times.
Among local Authorities that have not taken the freeze grant, none have increased council tax above the centrally prescribed level. The cost of a referendum on whether to raise council tax is a barrier to holding one, the NAO case study found Authorities indicated that the costs involved in undertaking the required referendum are too substantial. For example:
- West Midlands estimate total costs would be in excess of £1 million to hold a referendum, while running a station with one whole-time pump for a year costs around £1 million.
- Greater Manchester estimate that given the costs from losing a referendum, which would result in a full re-billing, an increase of around 15% would be required to balance the risk.
Local cuts in spending
The graph below provides some useful information on how income reductions have impacted difference services.
The cost base for fire and rescue services
The balance of savings within fire and rescue partly reflects the structure of the cost base of fire authorities. As a direct provider of services, 76.7% of their cost base at the start of the last Parliament in 2010-11 comprised pay and pensions. Similarly, police forces, as direct service providers had 83.0% of their costs in this area.
In contrast, many services provided by local authorities have commissioning-based service models which have very different cost structures. Consequently, while employee costs represent 100% of net savings in fire and police over this period, they account for only 48% in local authorities.
This does not mean that fire and rescue authorities have no opportunities to make savings in their running costs. However, they do not have the capacity to make savings through re-tendering or renegotiating contracts in the way that commissioning-based services do.
The focus on employee costs as a source of savings also reflects the priority placed by authorities on maintaining appliances and stations. Authorities we spoke to stressed these were valued by the public and are key to maintaining emergency response standards. However it is worth noting that while on one hand it is recognised that closing Fire Stations has a negative impact, due to cuts the Fire Service has been forced to closes 40 stations.
Reductions in staff numbers by 2015
Total full-time equivalent posts in fire and rescue authorities fell by 13.6% in the four years from 2010-11 to 2014-15. This compares to a fall of 16.6% for local authorities and 12.5% for the police.
Staff costs have reduced partly by the national wage freeze over this period, but mainly by reducing staff numbers. Reductions have been greatest in fire control staff as several authorities have merged fire control functions, and in non-uniformed staff as authorities have reduced back-office costs. Whole-time and retained firefighter numbers have also fallen.
Whole-time firefighters represent a substantial share of the total workforce. Consequently, while their numbers have reduced by only 13.5% this accounts for 56.6% of the reduction in staff numbers. Reductions in retained duty firefighters represent 18.9% of staff reductions, with non-uniformed and fire control staff accounting for 18.0% and 6.5% respectively.
Almost all authorities indicated they had made changes to shift patterns or duty systems, or were in the process of making such changes, in order to secure reductions in staff levels. For instance:
- Greater Manchester has maintained a 2-2-4 duty system but introduced an annualised hours model, and a voluntary ‘additional hours’ scheme which together have reduced firefighter numbers by 30%.
- West Sussex has introduced a 2-2-6 system which incorporates annual leave. This has allowed the service to reduce headcount at all stations by three per station.
Fire Service sustainability by 2015
This section assesses the impact of funding reductions and fire authorities’ responses on their financial health and their service sustainability. It examines the:
- implications of funding reductions on authorities’ financial sustainability;
- changes to service provision in response to funding reductions; and
- impacts of funding reductions on service outcomes.
Maintaining financial sustainability
As with local authorities, fire and rescue authorities operate within a legal framework that effectively prevents them becoming insolvent. Nonetheless, assessing authorities’ capacity to absorb further reductions is vital for identifying whether any are at risk of breaching their statutory responsibilities.
Among stand-alone authorities total reserve levels have grown. However, within this aggregate picture more authorities have begun to draw on their reserves. No stand-alone authorities drew on reserves in 2010-11, but by 2014-15, 21.4% drew on their reserves.
However, use of reserves is only a potential indicator of stress as reserves can form part of a robust financial strategy. This may include, for instance, invest-to-save activities.
There have been no financial failures since funding reductions began in 2010-11. No ‘section 114’ reports have been produced for fire authorities (which are necessary if an authority were unable to balance its books). Equally, no fire authorities have had their accounts qualified.
However, underlying these high-level indicators there are some potential signs of stress. Annual governance returns show that auditors raised concerns over aspects of the financial health of five stand-alone authorities in 2013-14. Peer challenges of fire and rescue authorities, which do not focus on financial sustainability, nonetheless highlighted financial concerns in two stand-alone authorities. Overall, there were ten stand-alone fire authorities (out of 30) that had either used reserves in 2014-15 or had some indication of financial pressure in either their most recent annual governance report or peer challenge.
The defining feature of each authority’s emergency response service is its response standard: the time in which it aims to reach each incident. We have been able to identify 33 sets of standards from 46 fire authorities. Several have changed since 2010-11, but only one case is linked to budget pressures.
However, several authorities indicated that they have changed or plan to change aspects of their response due to funding pressures. This includes:
- Sometimes responding with smaller appliances that have reduced crew levels. West Midlands has introduced smaller firefighting vehicles with three crew, compared to standard pumps with five.
- Reducing crewing levels on standard pumps. Cleveland indicated that they have reduced the number of firefighters from five to four on the majority of their whole-time pumps.
Authorities we spoke to indicated there were risks linked to the actions they had taken or may take to deliver savings, particularly in relation to any further reductions in firefighters. Some authorities were concerned that this may potentially degrade the overall service offer, as falling staff numbers may lead to fewer appliances and stations.
One authority was also concerned that further firefighter reductions might increase risks to firefighter safety. Another was concerned that staff reductions would prompt industrial action. Other authorities mentioned that changing crewing arrangements for specialist equipment increases the time taken to mobilise these appliances.
Prevention and protection
Fire and rescue authorities have a statutory duty to provide prevention and protection services, though there is no minimum standard specified. Fire and rescue authorities have reduced these activities since 2010-11.
There may be factors in addition to funding reductions underlying some of these changes, however. Time spent on campaigns, for instance, was falling before 2010-11. The Department believe that these reductions have been driven by greater targeting of activity on high risk groups.
The most noticeable reductions in fire safety check activity have taken place since 2010-11. Nonetheless, the Department argues that this may also be partly explained by authorities targeting their activity; properties where the householder is disabled where time spent on checks has increased by 29.7%. They also point to the fact that a higher percentage of homes now have smoke alarms.
Evidence from our case studies suggests that some, but not all, authorities had reduced their prevention and protection work in response to funding reductions.
Case study authorities lacked strong evidence on the potential impacts of reductions in protection and prevention work. This tended to reflect the difficulty of isolating the precise impact of these activities rather than any view that reducing them would have no effect. West Midlands expressed concerns that there may be a lag between a reduction in prevention and protection work and an increase in incidents. In recent years London Fire Brigade has avoided making further reductions in this front-line service area.
This reflects a lack of detailed understanding of the contribution made by protection and prevention activities at a central government level. The Department states that protection and prevention activities have contributed to the downward trend in fires in recent years, but is also aware that other factors – such as regulations on flame-retardant furniture – have had an impact.
There is a lack of detailed research on the relative contributions made by such differing factors behind the improvement in outcomes in recent years. In the absence of such research, neither the Department nor individual authorities are well-placed to assess the potential impacts of reductions in preventative activities.
Average response times have increased slightly over this period from 8 minutes 16 seconds in 2010-11 to 8 minutes 24 seconds in 2013-14 for all primary fires. Almost all types of fire saw an increase in average response time, although some were marginal
- Fire Brigades Union - Save our Fire and Rescue Service - https://www.fbu.org.uk/SOFS
Central Funding Cuts 2016 to 2018
Following their election victory in 2015 the Conservative government continued with their cuts to Fire Services. This section details the impact this has had upon the service that was already feeling the strain of the previous 5 years of cuts.
Overall cuts 2010 to 2018
The government followed the 30% cuts to central funding with a further cut of 20% to the fire service.
This graph represents the impact of the further cuts to the Fire Service over this parliament (2015-18 ignoring GE17 as it didn't change government policy). Overall spending has dropped by 30% on average since 2010. The government have reduced their spending on the Fire Service by around 45% over the last 8 years. As local spending from council tax has held up fairly well, only showing small reductions in comparison, the overall cut in spending is 30%. This is a significant drop in expenditure. The graph for the 2016-2018 is not weighted for the rise in costs, so the figures are likely a little worse, although as Firefighters salaries have barely increased over the period, it is fair to say they have carried the burden of inflation rather than an increase in salary costs.
Reduction in Firefighters
The number of firefighters has seen a constant decline since 2010. Cuts to Fire Service funding inevitably lead to reduced numbers as a major element in service costs are wages for firefighters. There is little space for the service to make savings in other areas short of closing stations or reducing equipment. Equipment and stations have been reduced and this is covered further on.
Firefighter numbers have fallen by 11,000 since 2010. This represents a 20% fall in front-line firefighters. In London alone, 10 fire stations have been closed, 27 fire engines axed and more than 600 firefighter posts have been cut..
NOTE: This Graph was created by taking the total number of firefighters in 2010 and dividing the reduction by each year. If you have a more accurate depiction of the numbers, please email to admin.
National guidance states that each firefighter should do refresher practical training at least every two years, and preferably every year. It’s expensive, requiring a high level of supervision, safety controls, emergency procedures, contingencies, trained instructors, equipment and fuel.
Senior fire officers forced to allocate increasingly tight budgets are in an extremely difficult position – one made harder in some cases by the recent re-categorisation of certain types of fires. What was once classed as FDR1 – the code for property fire, such as a small cooking fire with damage only to food and cookware – is now known, in some fire services, as a “false alarm, good intent, near miss” incident. This means that, despite needing to be approached with similar planning and control measures as much larger incidents, these are no longer “fires” in the eyes of statisticians and politicians. This has led to the categorisation of fewer fires and subsequently less funding for training on how to combat them.
Over the past 20 years the industry has developed a better understanding of fire dynamics and dangers, led originally by the Scandinavian fire services and fire science academics. But this ever-increasing pool of information has been shoe-horned into pre-existing “refresher” training courses on general breathing apparatus skills, such as searching in darkness, safe movement and entry control. These are all critical skills – but it is very difficult to impart all relevant information and learning into annual or bi-annual two-day training courses. Again, it is hard for even the most progressive chief officers to argue for staff to be taken “off the run” and given extra training in any discipline with the necessary costs that are incurred and the reduction in the number of firefighters means it is much more difficult to cover the absence.
Lack of training costs lives. An analysis of UK firefighter deaths in the line of duty from 1995 to 2013 shows a worrying trend: 15 people have died fighting fires in England, compared with just three people at other emergency incidents.
Increased response times
Response times have seen a steady but constant increase since the nineties. The increased times have been attributed to increases in traffic over the period, slowing down the fire tenders. With the reduction of staff, engines and stations this figure has continued to increase and the opportunity to halt the trend has been reduced.
- Cuts to the fire service are putting lives at risk - Andrew Scattergood 15-June-2017 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/15/cuts-fire-service-putting-lives-at-risk
- Firefighter deaths while on duty , England 1986/1987 to 2012/13 - https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/313049/140425_F0007682_DL_response.pdf
- Government statistics: Fire Response times up to 2016/17 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/584337/fire-statistics-data-tables-fire1001.xlsx
Fire deaths rising numbers
The number of fire deaths is very hard to establish. Different sources appear to give different results. The BBC for example appears to contradict itself, first stating that deaths have fallen in 2016/17 and then later in their piece giving a figure that shows them to have risen in line with the figures given by the Fire Brigade Union. The Guardian has a useful article on the subject. Government figures show a rise in deaths, but exclude Grenfell altogether.
In the graph I have included Grenfell deaths. There seems to be a view that Grenfell is somehow a one off freak case that shouldn't be allowed to skew the figures. In the Grenfell section on this page and on the separate page on Grenfell it is shown that this is not the case and that the deaths reflect a Conservative attitude to cost cutting and privatisation that make incidents like Grenfell depressingly inevitable.
2015-2016 saw a 15% rise in fire deaths compared with the year before. September 2017, there were 346 fire-related fatalities (including 71 from the Grenfell Tower fire) compared with 253 in the previous year – a 37% increase (up 9% not including Grenfell)
- BBC Reality Check https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-42001463
- Sharp rise in fire deaths 2016 >> https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/apr/26/fire-deaths-rise-by-21-as-chiefs-issue-cuts-warning
Fire stations closed and equipment slashed
At least 40 fire stations have closed since 2010, with 10 closed in London alone. Further to this many have moved to part time working due to not having enough fire fighters to make them operational. Fire Services across the country have seen a corresponding cut in fire fighting equipment.
- Fire Station cuts - Daily Mirror article July 2018 https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/britains-fire-service-crisis-regions-13012367
Cuts for 2019/20
The government had just announced a further 15% cut to Fire Service funding for the period 2019/20.There is growing pressure on fire and rescue services across the UK. Last year saw a 3% increase in fires and a 1% increase in overall incidents attended by firefighters. Firefighters rescued over 45,000 people last year, 4% more than the year before. That includes 42,000 rescues from non-fire incidents, including flooding, hazardous chemical spillages, road traffic collisions, and lift rescues . There has been a 27% increase in fatalities to 334, including the 72 lives lost at Grenfell Tower.
Being worked on by Zoe
Fire Brigades Union (FBU) Video
This FBU video details the levels of cuts the Fire service has suffered since 2010, including the number of firefighters lost, number of stations closed and the number of appliances removed. It also covers so real cases where due to the cuts the Fire service has been unable to meet response times, leading to deaths.